Review of “From Prophet to Priest: The Characterization of Aaron in the Pentateuch” by James Findlay

James D. Findlay. From Prophet to Priest: The Characterization of Aaron in the Pentateuch. CBET 77 (Bristol, CT: Peeters). Pp. 423.

The goal of Findlay’s book is straight-forward: he seeks to offer a thorough analysis of Aaron’s characterization in the Pentateuch. In what follows, I offer a summary of his analyses. For each chapter, I raise criticisms regarding his analyses.

Chapter one discusses standard issues for any monograph. First, he reviews the state of scholarship and issues of methodology. He contends that (1) no comprehensive analysis of Aaron’s literary character, (2) with multiple methodological approaches, has been written. So he sets out his literary-critical and form-critical approaches. By using multiple methods for multiple readings, he suggests it is more in line with the Hebrew Bible itself.

While his attempt to utilize multiple methodologies is reasonable, his method is still unclear. For, literary-critical and form-critical approaches are good methods; however, they are only a portion of what should be covered in method. For example, Findlay does not consider the categories “prophet” and “priest” in the HB and ANE. Similarly, he does not engage with the documentary hypothesis. Even if Findlay does not agree with much within the documentary hypothesis, he should at least engage with it, offering a defense and argument as to why it does not play a large role in his methodology.

Additionally, Findlay seemingly offers no reason for texts he chose to examine (Ex. 7-11, 32-34; Lev. 8-10; Num. 12, 16-17; Deut. 9-10). Instead, he briefly comments that “an examination of this set of texts is useful because they represent a range of genres, including narrative, exhortation, and liturgies of priestly ordination, among others” (31). Even if these passages represent a range of genres, there is seemingly no reason or rhyme to what distinguishes these passages from any other appearance of Aaron in the Pentateuch.

Chapter two offers a structural and literary analysis of Exodus 7-11. Notably, Findlay approaches Ex. 7-11 as a united narrative. He justifies this by viewing the phrase wy’mer yhwy mshh as a marker for various sections. So, he reads 12 plagues, not 10. After laying out the structure of these 12 divisions, he highlights various phrases which may demonstrate the unity of Ex. 7-11. Within the text, he characterizes Aaron as acting sporadically. He calls it a ‘sign-cycle’ or ‘narrative’ or ‘prophetic legend’ narrative. He then asserts a cultic setting in the pre-exilic or post-exilic period; however, he offers no arguments or interaction with other scholarship, likewise with his assertion for the texts intention. He concludes that Aaron functions as a “prophet” to Moses, namely as his brother, partner, and associate. So, he is essentially parallel to Moses.

Like any reading, he offers an alternative to something like the documentary hypothesis; however, he does not engage at all with JEDP source. Although he makes reference to the “Priestly writer(s)” (98), he never seems to entirely engage; rather, Findlay only utilizes JEDP divisions when it is helpful to strengthening his own argument. Additionally, and similar to a previous criticism, Findlay does not define or offer sustained discussion about the categories of “priest” and “prophet.” For this reason, it is difficult to fully consider his argument when he offers no framework or discussions of what these roles mean in the HB and ANE. So, although there are some interesting observations tucked within his analyses, the lack of methodological strength severely destabilizes the majority of his conclusions.

Chapter three offers a structural and literary analysis of Ex. 32-34, focusing on Aaron’s role in the narrative. Based on the structure, Findlay argues that Aaron endangered the community through his actions. Although not held responsible for the sin of the people, Aaron does become subordinate to Moses. In other words, he is ‘demoted.’ So, while Aaron is originally ‘almost equal’ to Moses, he now recedes into the text’s background. In his literary-analysis, he reaches a similar conclusion. Whereas in Ex. 32 Aaron is independent, he is absent in 33 and not at the forefront of 34. Because Aaron is not honest about the incident in 33:21 and the narrator notes Aaron’s guilt, the role of Aaron is demoted in the text. For, now he is only referenced with other characters.

 

Like the other chapters, there are interesting observations tucked away. The negative critiques of his analysis, though, strongly out-weight the positive. First, in all his discussion about Aaron’s role in the calf incident as a priest, he does not consider how Aaron’s actions reflect other broader priestly concerns in the HB and ANE. Put another way, what is a ‘priest’ and what does a ‘priest’ do? How did priests in the HB and ANE relate to the people? Again, his argument regarding the characterization of Aaron is weak because it does not address a basic, yet primary, methodological concern.

Second, although small, one comment may reflect a problem with Findlay’s attentiveness to the text. Speaking of the Levites slaying those who sacrificed to the calf, he notes that the Levites had been blessed “due both to their loyalty to Moses and their willingness to kill man of their Israelite kin” (117). First, they were not “loyal” to Moses; rather, the Levites were dedicated to Yahweh. Similarly, the notion of “willingness to kill many of their Israelite kin” carries an almost moral weight. Yet, again, though, he failed to consider the category of “priest” in the HB and ANE, which would have clarified the actions of slaying the people. This issue of defining priest is further present in his conclusion about the characterization of Aaron: “Whether or not he is a priest is unclear; however, we might conclude that Aaron no longer has the status of prophet, with his unfortunate behavior during the incident with the Golden Calf being the likely reason” (126). If Findlay is unclear whether or not Aaron is a priest at this point, perhaps he should begin by expanding his analysis to consider the conceptual world of the scribe of Exodus. This would include considering what a priest is within the Pentateuch, HB, and ANE. This issue with defining ‘priest’ is a problem through all of this book.

Third, he lacks attention to the nuances of words, which raises concerns for all of his readings. For example, his discussion of Exodus 32:6b suggests that “the description contains no judgmental statement from the narrator that the actions are lurid or abominable… Thus, the object and character of the people’s actions, at this point in the narrative, remain uncertain” (141). A brief look at the BDB entry for the root tsch-k suggests otherwise (books contain typo with h instead of ch). BDB defines the verb as “to laugh.” Each appearance of the root is in a somewhat negative context (i.e. laughing at Yahweh’s promise to Abraham, what the Philistines have Samson do between the pillars, Joseph “making sport” of his master’s wife, etc. In other words, the root is typically used in negative situations. So, use of the root tsch-k does, in fact, indicate that the narrator is commenting on the people’s actions to some degree. Unfortunately, Findlay fails to address this obvious nuance of the root.

Chapter four discusses Aasron’s characterization in Lev. 8-10. Within his structural analysis, Findlay illustrates a shift from chapter 8 to 9. Whereas Aaron is the recipient of Moses’ acts in chapter 8, he shifts into the role of primary ritual actor in chapter 9. Chapter 10, though, shifts Aaron into another role: he now becomes an independent speaker. With these shifts, Aaron’s “role as prophet [has] apparently almost completely receded, but his function as priest is in full view” (195). Consequently, he describes the genre of Lev. 8-10 as a narrative of priestly consecration, ordination, and installation (19) on the basis of structure and comparison with the NIN.DINGIR priestess at Emar. Additionally, on the basis of a post-exilic setting, he suggests that the text’s intention is to characterize Aaron a priest accountable to Moses. Shifting to literary analysis, Findlay highlights Aaron’s role as the primary object in Lev. 8, suggesting his role as an ideal priest: “Aaron is presented to the readers of Lev. 8 as obedient to commands, receptive of enrobement and anointment, and immediately capable of ritual action once he is consecrated… he stands before us as the ideal priest, newly installed in office” (208). 

Findlay’s division of Lev. 9, Aaron is characterized as a priestly hero and flawless liturgical functionary: the perfect priest. As for Lev. 10, Findlay asserts that Aaron, though no longer the perfect priest, is an “effective community leader.” He bases this on an assertion that “we can sense, by the content and tone of his speech which closes the unit, that Aaron is not just a priest, but a responsible, responsive human being, possessed of both eloquence and emotion” (226).

Again, there are some interesting observations tucked away; however, none are necessarily worth noting. Instead, I will focus on a few serious issues. First of all, he does not engage with questions of ritual errors in the HB and Akkadian literature. This is problematic because Leviticus 8-10 revolves around ritual and, eventually, ritual error. If Findlay is considering Aaron’s role as a priest, it must also take into consideration other rituals and ritual errors. This would help to clarify what is happening in Lev. 8-10 and Aaron’s role within it. Yet, he does not do this.

Second, Findlay’s characterization of Aaron in Lev. 9 is so elevated that it is almost humorous. Essentially, because Aaron “proceeds without error or uncertainty, and asks no questions of either Moses or YHWH to clarify how he ought to act during the ritual procedures” (215), Findlay determines that Aaron is a “priestly hero”, “perfect priest”, and “flawless liturgical functionary.” In other words, Findlay is so fixated on Aaron’s characterization that he seems to elevate Aaron significantly beyond what the text itself expresses. This points to a consistent problem with this book. Although it is a book about Aaron’s characterization, it is so fixated on Aaron that everything not directly related to Aaron becomes fuzzy, sloppy, and not thorough (see my other critiques throughout this review).

Third, and dovetailing off of the previous critique, many of his arguments lack attention to syntax, simply resorting to a basic, undeveloped reading of a text. For example, the reason he emphasizes the “perfectly obedient character of Aaron” by noting that Yahweh commanded Moses, who subsequently commanded Aaron. Therefore, Aaron is a great priest for listening. Yet, this is not particularly surprising in priestly literature. For, it is normal for any priest to perform the ritual duties correctly. In other words, Findlay unnecessarily over-emphasizes the “obedience,” when Aaron simply functioned ritually how he was supposed to function. A similar problem occurs in his discussion of chapter 5: “though [Aaron] is the object of devine speech, he is also a perfectly obedient servant of that divine power, going forth to the tent, alongside Miriam, just as they are commanded” (288; italic added for emphasis). So, again, he fails to recognize the sematic range of commands and their syntax. After all, in Hebrew Letters, an imperative is sometimes directed towards a person in a higher social standing. Does this mean the person in a higher social standing will be “obedient” to the person sending the letter? No. For, volitives do not always function to express “perfect obedience” in a religious sense, as Findlay seems to suggest.

In chapter five, Findlay analyzes Numbers 12. In his form-critical analysis, he first highlights 5 commonly accepted factors in Numbers 12. He then divides it into four sections, without offering argumentation for the division. Working through the text, he concludes that “Aaron is characterized as a community leader who needs and receives correction, is able to plead effectively for others, and is accountable to appropriate human and divine authority” (255), with ambiguity regarding his role as priest/prophet. In the literary analysis, Findlay illustrates that the grammar points to the important literary and communal role of Miriam. Then, Miriam and Aaron are equated. Both, he argues, are prophets. Aaron’s role shifts in vs. 9 where he becomes an interceding figure between Moses and Miriam. So, he is illustrated to be linked to Miriam and subordinate to Moses, a priest and prophet in relation to others.

Unlike the previous chapters, chapter five does contain some interesting observations with fewer criticism. For, in his linking Miriam and Aaron, he made a convincing argument based primarily in the grammar. Although there are many assertions, none overwhelmingly detracts from his argument, save for the point I previously made about “perfect obedience.” The primary criticism is reflective of problems throughout the book. Regarding Aaron’s intercession for Miriam, he comments that “here, it seems, his compassion and care exceed those of both Israel’s God and Moses” (281). A statement like this, while possibly true within a Western framework of religion and social interactions, does not take seriously the conceptual world of the HB. This is one of the biggest problems of this book. It never really takes seriously the conceptual world of the HB and ANE, unless it conveniently supports his argument.

 

Chapter six discusses Numbers 16-17. Regarding his form-critical analysis, he concludes that Aaron is presented as a proper priestly practitioner. For, those who oppose Aaron are opposed by Yahweh. The date of the text, he contends, is late in the Persian period, with a setting of the temple circles. As for the intention of the text, he writes that “the depiction of Aaron as the object of Levitical attack, as the liturgical actor who saves the community from plague, and the one chosen by the deity to approach the holy place safely, is central to the text’s intentions. The leadership of his descendants at the Temple and in the community is affirmed” (310). In terms of literary analysis, Aaron functions as a companion to Moses, representative of Yahweh, and opponent of Korah; however, in the midst of Aaron’s silence, Findlay asserts that “he is a power present in the narrative. In Chapter 17:1-5, Aaron is apparently “a triumphant priest, who now has no rivals for any aspect of his activities or community leadership role” (328). In the remained of Chapter 17, Aaron is apparently portrayed as “the sole legitimate priestly actor in Israel… as the best possible priest… [and] as the one who can safely and powerfully represent them [the people]” (338).

Like previously mentioned, Findlay praises priests too much. The function of a priest in antiquity was similar to how Aaron is represented. Instead, Findlay seems to ignore the widespread phenomena of priests and their cult function, focusing solely on the text. Without discussion of the notion of priesthood, he makes claims which so ever emphasize Aaron’s significance that they seem somewhat silly, such as the claim that “Aaron acts as the best possible priest.” In reality, it seems that Aaron is just doing what any priest is supposed to do, albeit with the nuances of ancient Judean cult practices as represented by literature.

Chapter 7 addresses Aaron’s role in Deuteronomy 9-10:11. Within the form-critical approach, Aaron is addressed thrice. First, Aaron is specifically addressed as one with whom Yahweh was angry, viewed as a distinct character from the community. He determines that it should be deemed as the genre of “Address of Exhortation and Paranesis,” which seems to simply combine older scholarly views. Aaron, though, is understood as a “warning sign” that people may anger the deity, namely how Aaron is represented in the text. Like every other appearance, he claims the ‘setting’ is for public gathers. As for the literary critical analysis, he claims that Aaron is simply referenced to highlight past sins against Yahweh. He also also depicted in 9:20a as without agency. So, Findlay concludes “his characterization her is a decidedly negative one. Aaron is weak, dependent, powerless, and unable to speak or act” (367). Concerning Aaron’s death itinerary, Findlay goes as far as to say that the “entire content of Aaron’s life is unimportant to the author(s) of the biblical book… Aaron is presented, then, as an example of what the people are not… Aaron is an Israelite actor who perishes before receiving the land and other blessings which are promised” (383).

Regarding this Chapter, I have three major criticisms. First, he discusses Deuteronomy 9:20a, even noting that it specifically links with other texts like Exodus 32. Yet, he does not even consider the possibility of utilizing inner-biblical exegesis. For something like this, where Aaron is said to have sinned in one and not in the other, inner-biblical exegesis would potentially help to clarify either Deuteronomy 9:20a and/or Exodus 32. For, tracing how the scribe understood one tradition in light of the other (assuming one could establish the use of one in the other) would be valuable.

Second, his argument that Aaron is powerless and weak is silly. For, he bases this argument upon the extent to which Aaron has agency in the text. Agency, though, does not necessarily express ones power, especially in a narrative, literary text! If he wants to interpret positive or negative characterization of Aaron on the basis of agency, he needs to prove that agency of a character functions as a tool by which the scribe attempts to characterizes characters. This must be demonstrated as a consistent pattern in the Pentateuch, which he does not do.

Third, his argument for setting is extremely problematic. For, it indicates that his methodology is, in fact, not very critical. He suggests the setting is a public gather on the following basis: Nehemiah 8 describes communal worship associated with reading the sepher; the reading lasts several hours, with people weeping after hearing the reading; because Deuteronomy 5-11 has a “sharp and challenging tone” (356), it would be a fitting setting, namely the post-exilic period. In his own words, “reminder of past sins contained in Deut. 9:1-10:11, spoken by a voice with “Mosaic authority,” would serve extremely well to admonish returning exiles regarding past failures and the need to avoid them in the future” (356). Such a claim is baseless. It seemingly ignores any and all scholarship about Nehemiah, makes ridiculous attempts to connect the texts on the basis that “people wept,” and fails to take into account any consideration about historical studies. In short, it is a poor, unfortunate conclusion. In light of the various other issues, though, it is not a surprising conclusion.

In conclusion, this is a poorly argued volume. It utilizes a poor methodology and fails to address many issues critical to the research. While there are a few interesting observations in the book, it is, overall, not worth reading.